REGARDING YOUR INTERACTIVE FUTURE
In about 235 weeks it will be January 1, 2000. By then, exponentially growing semiconductor power, digital storage capacity and wide-area bandwidth for transporting digital bits will all be excessive and negligible in cost. How will these technologies reshape our business landscape?
For starters - information technologies will permit "just-in-time, interactive, multimedia education." We will talk to our computers to send our intelligent agents to our favorite information services to get - education on any topic we choose; as long as we chose; whenever and where ever we chose; in the mediums we choose; and we will co-create our own educational pathway at our own pace. But, think of the "creative destruction."
What will happen to - the traditional teachers at schools; the expert sage on the stage at business gatherings; and, the product-centric salesreps who relay information to customers within channels of distribution? Most of what these knowledge experts offer will be taken over by just-in-time learning alternatives and businesses will have to stop pushing unneeded "solutions" to the customers. Customers will prefer instead to pull solutions to themselves, if and when they need them - call this "reverse digital marketing" (RDM).
If many information delivery people see their traditional value-added roles collapsing over the next 235 weeks, then how should they re-invent themselves to fill what new emerging needs? Will customers, for example, pay an unbundled fee for someone who sells consulting services to grow their bottom line?
SELL INFORMATION FOR A PROFIT?
Who will create the multimedia information services that our traditional customers will go to first for education? Will it be us or some unknown third party? Could we eventually make money selling information that surrounds the traditional products that we sell? There are precedents for this. TV Guide makes more money selling information about what the broadcasting companies are doing than the four big ones combined. Travel agents pay money for using the Sabre system from American Airlines who in turn makes more money from their Sabre division than it does from its planes. McKesson, the $12 billion drug wholesaler, sold a glorified database business called PCS to Eli Lilly for $4 billion. PCS was started in 1986, and its sale price was 5 times greater than the residual market capitalization value of the wholesaling business.
Considering the trend for margins on commodity tangibles, is it possible that it will become more profitable to sell information about the underlying stuff, than selling the stuff? Will the stuff become the giveaway razor to get the information blade business? If so, has the race started to be the creator of the #1 info-source that our customers will habitually go to in 235 weeks?
But wait! If we and our customers are cyber-phobics who are not even "on-line" today, how should we begin to migrate towards a mutually beneficial, interactive, information future? A long, uncertain journey might best begin with a few simple, inexpensive steps.
INTERACTIVE BABY STEPS:
1. Hire a local high-school junior who is a serious bulletin board system (BBS) "scene" participant to get you cruising and E-mailing on-line. Then you can check other corporate BBSs and experience the power of publishing and distributing information electronically as well as primitive, text-only, just-in-time education.
2. Start building an ever better one-stop, solution database for inside salespeople that goes beyond product solutions. Survey one customer niche at a time for all of their - "I wish I had an answer for this problem" needs. An editorial, research team can start to formulate answers to the most common questions by topic area. These answers can then be stored in a frequently asked question (FAQs) file for handy reference.
3. Next, we must push the power of the database out to the customers starting with FAX ON DEMAND (FOD). If the customer's fax number is on file, then inside sales folks can fax whatever is on their screen to the customer as they talk. Warning - first time recipients get very excited and think that they are becoming high-tech.
For distributors in those channels that have developed industry CD-ROM catalogs with the help of Automated Catalogue Services, L.P. of Wayne, Pa. - steps 2 and 3 above are already possible for product-centric questions. Some distributor customers have already offered to pay for their copies of these CD-ROMís. If customers find it faster and easier to solve their own product questions, whose traditional channel activities will be destroyed? Will new jobs be created?
4. Next, put the high schooler back to work on setting up and running a simple company BBS for the customers. Outside sales people can teach customers how to use their PCs to - log on, lurk, inquire and eventually retrieve their own FAQ answers, etc. Most customers' cyber-phobia is an opportunity for field reps and a barrier to entry for industry outsiders who cannot market affordably to customers who are not already on-line. This barrier of digital illiteracy will last for only about 1 to 3 years before business survival will demand that everyone be on-line.
5. Immediately start a weekly or bi-weekly, one page, FAX BROADCAST BULLETIN to all customers with fax machines. Each bulletin might have 5 to 10 bite-size descriptions about new products, brochures, business solution stories, etc. If the customers are interested in the whole solution or a free sample, then they can call or fax in their request for fulfillment. The rep on the account can be E-mailed about "the hit", so that they can get smart on the chosen subject for further in-depth follow-up.
The economics of fax broadcasting are incredible. It is 5x cheaper than a direct mailing and much more timely. Little ads from upstream suppliers at the bottom could even turn the bulletin into a money maker if you were so inclined.
The customer will be 5x more likely to notice and read already opened fax-mail first thing in the morning than they will regular junk mail in the afternoon. Everyone likes scanning 10 possible solutions in 60 seconds at the day's outset with a cup of coffee. Even if nothing appeals to them in a given issue, they feel efficient; they know that you are techno-savy; they think they are too; and they know and tell the competition that you were the first with both the relevant and irrelevant news. Demoralizing competitors' sales reps is good too!
The best benefit, though, starts when a customer calls to say - "I am out here; I can read; and I see something that is coincidentally meeting a current, important need of mine. Please send me more!" Now, we get only right solutions to the right customers weeks ahead of the competition. We can afford fewer, but more focused and expensive follow-ups, as we significantly reduce the historical rate of mis-targeted, mis-timed and poorly planned selling efforts.
The law of the harvest states that we can only reap what we sow. If we are planting better and more seeds into the right customer soil at the right time, total planting costs drop while yields soar.
Fax broadcasting menus of solutions will start us down the path of reverse digital marketing. We are exposing the customer to the superior option of pulling only important solutions when and how they want them. In 235 weeks, no customer will tolerate any supplier trying to mass market or push inappropriate solutions to them through the mail or with sales calls. If reps do make occasional calls in the future, those calls will have been preceded by RDM and teleconferencing. And, such calls are most apt to be for installing solutions or doing post-sale training for an unbundled fee.
Information technology will either transform businesses or start killing them over the next five years. The larger and more rigid the company, the greater the transformational challenge. The keys to success will be to see the future first and start to take small, inexpensive steps now. Each step should ideally help business improve today, but at the same time build our capabilities to succeed in a game with different rules in 5 years.
The recommendations above can be sold initially as incremental enhancements to the existing way of doing business, but their effects will grow exponentially with the enabling technologies to eventually demand big changes that will meet big resistance. Distributors, for example, will have to deal with downsizing, upgrading, re-inventing, and un-bundling salesreps. Manufacturers will have similar problems with their reps, plus they will have to weed lagging distributors to partner with the transforming ones. Regardless of when we choose to face transformational pain, it is time to put our toes in the on-line, digital waters. Gentlemen start your modems!
P.S. RDM will have profound implications for trade magazines and trade shows. Advertisers will shift significant dollars to the multi-media, interactive, information services for which they will only pay when end-users "click" on to their sponsored material. Perhaps trade - magazines, associations and shows should all consider some of the above recommendations too.
Merrifield Consulting Group, Inc.
Article 7.4; D. O. Essay # 12